Prescriptivist’s Corner: Taking Johnson To Task

LEXICO’GRAPHER. n.s. A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and signification of words.
—Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755

I included this quote in the last newsletter as part of the announcement of the change of the blog/newsletter name from A Way With Words to The Harmless Drudge. The new name is, of course, taken from Johnson’s famed dictionary definition.

But a reader wrote back complaining about the use of that in the definition, and Samuel Johnson or not, this was just plain incorrect. It should be, she said, who busies himself.

What we have here is an excellent illustration of how language changes over time. Of course, in today’s speech we would not properly use that to refer to a person. That is a relative pronoun that refers to things. Who or whom are used to refer to people. But this was not always so.

That is one of the oldest pronouns in English. As seen in this passage from the Vespasian Psalter, c.825:

In bebode ðæt ðu bibude. (In command that thou decree.)

It was common through the 18th century to use that in reference to people as well as things. We have this from Wycliffe’s 1382 Bible:

Oure fadir that art in heuenes

Or there is this from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written in 1601:

By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me.

The word that fell out of favor in the 17th century, disappearing from literary works during that century. It returned in the next.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that grammarians started calling for the restriction of that to inanimate objects. The first of these was an anonymous 1752 work, Observations Upon the English Language. It said who was:

the only proper Word to be used in Relation to Persons and Animals.

This grammar did not refer to that at all, instead calling for which to be used “in Relation to Things.” This is probably a holdover from the disdain that that was held in the previous century.

Johnson, writing at about the same time as the anonymous prescriptivist, seems to have had a better eye for the actual use of language. His use of that is right in line with other texts of his day.

But in this case, the prescriptivists seem to have won. Over the years since Johnson, the use of that has become restricted to things, such that his words appear a bit strange, and even incorrect, to the modern reader. The lesson is that criticism of usage in past centuries needs to be judged by the standards of that day, not by our own.

(Sources: Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage; Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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